Pain Questionnaire for Vocab Learning

CaptureI recently came across the McGill Pain Questionnaire or the McGill Pain Index, a tool developed in the 70’s by a Montreal doctor to be used in medical settings for patients to self-rate the pain they’re feeling. It contains 78 words divided into 20 sections or categories.

Now, I am not in a position to comment on the effectiveness of its clinical usage, but I think it could be used for vocabulary learning, especially for advanced students or students studying English for use in healthcare study or professional settings.

I can think of tons of ways to use this tool in the classroom. Because of the pain descriptors are broken down and organized into categories (temporal, spatial, affective, etc.), I think it provides a less overwhelming introduction to this vocabulary then an unsorted list. With so many words that are essentially synonyms for the word ‘painful’, the chief challenge will be learners differentiating the subtleties in meaning and usage of all these words. I think the categorization will help.

This vocab could then form the basis of disciplinary writing activities such as patient case reports, primary practice reports, or patient charts or records. It could play a role in speaking activities such as presentations for the context of public health education or outreach. The questionnaire form itself could form the basis of patient-clinician role-play activities.

A non-ESP/EAP extension activity would be noticing how and which of these words are used in fiction or journalistic texts, or in advertising (for pharmaceuticals, especially). I think it could also spark very interesting discussions on cross-linguistic descriptions and conceptualizations of pain as students will inevitably look for translations and equivalencies in their L1 or other languages.

In settlement English contexts, this could be adapted into an activity focusing on the linguistic aspects of visiting the doctor or the hospital in English. On a side note, for those teachers who haven’t ever or have rarely visited the doctor in an additional language, looking at the questionnaire is a great reminder of how linguistically demanding a doctor’s visit can be, and how a lack of vocabulary to describe pain (or body parts or functions, or many other things) could very easily result in inaccurate diagnoses or sub-standard care.



Why is English so Weird?

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI really love working with advanced learners because we can delve into the history of English. In fact,  for many of the questions that arise, especially surrounding English vocab, I find I usually have no choice but to explain  things in light of history; otherwise, lots of aspects of modern standard English would seem quite random.

A while back I developed a two-hour workshops for advanced learners of EAP on the history of English (and I asked for your help doing it!). I wanted to create a workshop that explained aspects of modern-day English that could seem really strange to learners in light of the history of the language, to show that they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The “OMG English makes no sense!” discourse is quite rampant (here and here are some examples..there are lots more!), even among English language teachers. I wanted us, as teachers, to go beyond the “That’s just the way it is!” response to students’ questions to be able to give them a more informed answer.

The first time I did it it was titled simply “The History of English”. Sounds dry, I know. 🙂 As it was part of a drop-in series of language workshops, the title really has an influence on the attendance, and well, let’s say that there were only a few people who came to the workshop the first time. I changed the title to “Why is English so Weird?”, which is essentially the question that guided the creation of the workshop. More people showed up each time it was offered with that title.

Here are my slides from that presentation. (As with many presentations, the slides may seem a bit sparse without the commentary and accompanying activities, but anyway… 🙂 We talk about and do some activities on language change and old, middle and modern English, Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate vocabulary after the Norman conquest, spelling and spelling reformers such as Noah Webster, loanwords from other languages into English, the Great Vowel Shift and sound to spelling correlations in modern English. I end the session talking about singular ‘they’ as an example of the evolution of language that is taking place right now.

What inspired me to write this blog post is that I recently came across this Wikipedia page on English word with dual Anglo-Saxon and French/Norman variants. This particular aspect of English vocabulary is so important for EAP, as that Latinate/French-origin vocabulary makes up so much of English’s general academic vocabulary as well as much disciplinary vocab. Learners of English whose first language non-European often don’t have a sense of  which words have a Latinate origin and which don’t, so awareness raising around this issue can help them develop a better sense of register and informal/formal vocabulary.

‘Radio Ambulante’, podcasts and ELT

CaptureI’ve been reflecting a lot lately on my own language learning experiences and how they affect my teaching. It has come up lately with regards to using podcasts in the classroom.

I’ve been an avid podcast listener for many years, and like many, one of the first podcasts I started listening to was NPR’s OG podcast, This American Life.

I’m just going to assume everyone knows This American Life (so if you don’t, just go and listen to their recommended episodes to start). Lots of people have written on how to incorporate podcasts featuring the narratives of ‘everyday people’ such as This American Life, Serial and others, into English language teaching and learning: here, here, and here, for example. I’ve recently gotten into an NPR podcast that I would probably describe as a Spanish-language equivalent of This American Life, Radio Ambulante. As an additional-language user of Spanish, listening to this podcast has given me a lot of first-hand insight into what an additional-language user of English might experience listening to This American Life or other similar podcasts, either in the classroom or on their own time.

First, and most places you see podcasts like  This American Life recommended for learners of English do only recommend it for advanced learners, it’s pretty challenging to listen to podcasts that features real-life stories and narratives from everyday people. Many of the episodes feature long-form stories with many intertwining characters. It’s the next step up from podcasts in simplified language such as Voice of America, or even podcasts in controlled, standard language such as lots of stuff on BBC or CBC. To help mitigate this, both Radio Ambulante and This American Life  feature transcripts of their podcasts, which are an invaluable learning tool, and Radio Ambulante even features English translations of their episodes.

Something that contributes to the difficulty of these pdocasts is the following: you’re hit over the head with sociolinguistic variation when you listen to Radio Ambulante. The podcast focuses on Latin America, so in a given episode you’ll hear the regional variety of Spanish used in the country that episode focuses on, but then you’ll also hear the variety used by the host(s). You also get exposed to a lot of social varieties of Spanish, be they those associated with different social classes, or different racio-ethnic varieties, or maybe even code-switching/translanguaging. It can be tough for me to wrap my ear around some varieties, especially non-standard varieties or those from regions I’m less used to.  The hosts/narrators of Radio Ambulante do a great job of  paraphrasing very localized words or terms for their pan-Latin American audience. This American Life and other NPR podcasts are very similar, featuring stories from everyday people from all regions of the US and elsewhere, in all their sociolinguistic glory. The podcast S-Town, for example, unfolds in Alabama English, and I can imagine it would be very challenging for a learner to follow. At the same time, using these types of podcasts in class would force you to bring up the subject of sociolinguistic variation and raise your students’ critical language awareness, something I’m very much in favour of.



Language Practice into Teaching Practice

A colleague and I were recently discussing the issue of which aspects of our professional practice as language instructors are informed by our formal training, which by our classroom teaching experience and which by our own personal experience as learners and users of additional languages. The topic came up in regards to the issue of the acquisition of metaphorical competence. For both of us, our own experiences of the process of becoming aware of the metaphorical schemata we hold in our L1, and then overcoming those to fully acquire metaphorical competence in other languages greatly informs how we approach teaching from the most basic structures to collocations, phrasal verbs, and idioms.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of travel and work in one of my additional languages lately, doing a lot of meetings and presentations in Spanish across Latin America. This has also made me reflect on how much of my teaching is informed by my own experiences in learning and using additional languages. Very practical strategies for learning and communication are another area that I draw on, sharing my own strategies with my students. There are the things we always advise our students to do—we all have our old chestnuts—but it’s good to have a reminder every so often of some of the real-life challenges that may come up and some practical advice on how to cope.

Here is what has stood out for me lately:

Predict and Prepare

One mantra I always emphasize when working with advanced users of academic English preparing for academic presentations, conferences or their thesis defence is predict and prepare. In advance of any particular event or context where they will have to talk about their research or discuss ideas in their field, they should think hard to predict what they have to talk about, and questions they may be asked or the responses they may have to give. Then, I advise them to actually sit down and prepare a list of the key words, concepts, terminology, expressions they will need to draw on in doing all of the above. They should not just make a simple list, but include common synonyms or collocations and related word forms, as well as pronunciation. Most people are used to the concept of rehearsing presentations, but I encourage students to also practice smaller-scale or more informal sections of these communicative events, such as Q and A responses, answers to certain predicted interview questions, and rebuttals to criticisms of one’s research.

I’ve certainly had to practice what I preach in this respect with regards to my recent work in Spanish. When presenting in English, I don’t tend to script things too closely; I’ll prepare notes or points on a Powerpoint and then speak off of them rather extemporaneously. But in Spanish I’ve been speaking about an area with a lot of specialized terminology, which I’ve really had to research and prepare for. Thankfully, a lot of the questions I receive are easily predictable, so that has helped me focus my preparation.

Regional variation and register

I’ve done work in 5 different Latin America countries in the last two months, each with its own patterns of second person pronoun use (tu, usted, vos, etc.) and variation in register. I’ll try to read up on the use of pronouns in each country before I get there, but there’s only so much an article can tell you. I try to be very sensitive and observant around patterns of use and how they vary in service encounters, meetings and when speaking to and advising  youth and prospective students, where the age factor comes into play. But it’s tricky! I try to err on the side of formality if in doubt.

This has inspired me to put more emphasis on register in my classes. Sometimes there can be a tendency to view English as simple in this respect, as there is only one second person singular pronoun. But I am feeling inspired about spending more time on examining the other ways register, hierarchy, respect, distance, etc. are expressed in English in interpersonal encounters, and encouraging learners to be observant and sensitive to these phenomena. I used to spend a lot of time approaching register in this way when I taught a lot of business English, but in an EAP context I find the focus tends to be on informal vs. academic writing and speech. I think the regional variation in register in Anglophone countries is also important, but as is usual in many ELT materials, the discussion tends to stop at British vs. American differences. Those trying to figure out register in Canada are left to figure it out for themselves! Observation of patterns and sensitivity become all the more important.

Informal Recasts

Awareness of the fact that even recasts in formal classroom settings go ignored most of the time has left me determined to try to listen for them and incorporate them to improve my accuracy, especially of vocabulary. For example, in a conversation with a student, I had used the term biología marítima to refer to marine biology, but he replied using the term biología marina. “Whoops!”, I said to myself, and took note to correct that term in my internal dictionary.

Does awareness of the research around recasts and the fact that they often lead to very little uptake make learners more likely to listen for them, take them in, and therefore make them more likely to be effective? I think it does, and always bring this up in class, especially in speaking and pronunciation classes.


Finally, not that there as any doubt, but these experiences have driven home the importance of fluency and confidence (over accuracy) in asserting yourself and being accepted as a user of a particular language. Many people, whether subconsciously or consciously, hold the idea that fluency (interplaying with pronunciation here) in a language reflects your cognitive state. So in real-life professional communicative situations it’s best to just employ any strategies necessary to get on with things, rather than getting hung up on grammatical mistakes or blanking on a particular piece of vocab. Finding time in class not just to discuss these strategies, but to practice them via role plays or other activities is very important.


Canadian Linguistic Diversity Not Reflected by Telefilm

CaptureCBC has run a story called Language barrier: Why some of Canada’s diverse filmmakers are shut out of funding, which details how Canada’s main film funding agency, Telefilm, only funds films that are made in English, French or an indigenous language. This means that every year, a variety of films are made by Canadian filmmakers that are ineligible for funding because they happen to be in languages other than English, French or an indigenous language. The article gives several examples of critically-acclaimed, award-winning films directed by Canadians of diverse linguistic backgrounds (including one who was awarded one of Telefilm’s own achievement awards) but that had been denied funding because of the film’s language. Some filmmakers have even used workarounds, such as going to the trouble of filming an alternate English-language version of their film that will never be released, simply because it means they will then qualify for funding. An interview with a Telefilm representative defends the policy on the grounds of scarcity of resources, and describes how films in indigenous languages weren’t even eligible until a few years ago.

I think this policy is out of touch with Canadian society. While I fully applaud the inclusion of indigenous languages in Telefilm’s eligibility criteria–this is of utmost importance–why have they stopped there? Why not have this eligibility criteria reflect the linguistic diversity of the Canadian population? This appears to me like the perfect example of the Eve Haque’s Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework (2012), the structures and related attitudes toward which continues to be present in a lot of our governmental and arms-length organizations and programs.

Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework means that a disconnect between language and culture and a linguistic hierarchy are built into governmental policy. Canada’s federal multiculturalism policies (section 27 of the Canadian constitution and the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act) have been criticized for giving the superficial appearance of diversity, while at the same time, divorcing culture from language, as Canada also has a framework of official English-French bilingualism (enshrined in the Official Languages Act of 1969). This has meant that

by de-emphasizing the languages of other cultural groups, [official bilingualism policy] helped to create a cultural and linguistic hierarchy in Canada. While multicultural policy suggested that newcomers were free to preserve their traditional cultures, bilingualism implied the assimilation of immigrants into the cultures of the two “founding races” (Guo, 2013, p. 26-27).

This divorcing of language from culture with regards to immigrants to Canada and the idea of immigrants preserving their cultures while assimilating linguistically to one of the official languages—preserving a cultural mosaic but not a linguistic one—is very pervasive ideology within the society at large:  “the imaginary of Canada as an English-speaking white-settler nation persists, despite dramatic changes resulting from increased immigration from non-European countries over the past 50 years” (Ricento, 2013, p. 480).

Hopefully CBC bringing this issue to light will influence Telefilm to change their eligibility criteria.


Guo, Y. (2013). Language Policies and Programs for Adult Immigrants in Canada: A Critical Analysis. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 45(1), 23–41.
Haque, E. (2012). Multiculturalism within a bilingual framework: Language, race, and belonging in Canada. University of Toronto Press.
Ricento, T. (2013). The consequences of official bilingualism on the status and perception of non-official languages in Canada. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 34(5), 475–489.

New Year’s Revelations

Sitting around on January 1st having a bleary-eyed coffee with friends, talk turned to resolutions for the new year, and one friend misheard the phrase as “New Year’s Revelations”. We laughed and talked about what this would mean: would something important or life-changing get revealed to you in 2018? Or would we swap out conversations about intentions to go to the gym more or take up knitting in the new year for a go around the circle where everyone shared a deep, dark secret with the group?

In any case, as I see friends and colleagues share their professional goals for 2018, I thought I’d put mine down on (digital) paper as well, as my goal for this year is a bit of an odd one, for me at least.

My resolution for 2018 is to do…nothing! (Well, nothing other than finish my doctoral dissertation.) This is actually a really hard resolution for me, because I am a conference addict. I love writing proposals, coming up with sessions, attending and presenting at conferences, and even getting on conference organizing committees. Most years I’ll easily do a half-dozen presentations or talks at different events, and attend or be involved in organizing a few more events on top of that. And I love it!

But it takes up a lot of time. And time is a precious commodity when you’re trying to work full time and simultaneously complete a doctorate. So my resolution is to devote all my spare time possible to my dissertation this year and cut WAAAAYYY down on conferences. So if you don’t see me around at events in 2018, know that I’m probably holed up in a library somewhere (or with my laptop at my kitchen table), hard at work writing. Hopefully my “revelations” in 2018 will come in the form of amazing things emerging from my data. 🙂

Happy New Year, everyone!

Talking Accents in The Coast

This one’s from the hometown files. Halifax’s alt-weekly, The Coast, published an article last week entitled Dalhousie’s Accent Clinic Sending Mixed Messages. The sub-heading of the article sums up the piece well: “Improving” a person’s speech by making them sound more like a local assumes a lot about class, power and nationality”. It contains commentary from international students from Kuwait and Nigeria studying in Halifax, along with a Dalhousie University social anthropology prof and a Saint Mary’s University linguistic anthropology prof, along with the director of the Accent Clinic, about several massive and intertwining issues around language and power, race, imperialism, and opportunity.

Overall, I thought it was a good article, and I agree with everything everyone in the article had to say. However, this is such a massive issue, and I think the article showed some gaps that could have been filled in by talking to a few more select people. One major point of view missing from the article is that of choice, opportunity and access to social capital (which I’ll talk about below).

(Full disclosure: in my professional role in the English language programs at Dalhousie we collaborate with the Accent Clinic, giving their info to students who may show speaking and pronunciation issues in English that stem from more serious cognitive, fluency, articulatory or speech problems that are best addressed by a speech-language pathologist. Similarly, if they get someone coming to their clinic wanting to improve their pronunciation, but that person would benefit from simply more instruction and comprehensible input and output in English language in general, they will let them know about the English language and academic English courses and workshops we offer.)

Anyway, so first, yes, all the people interviewed in the article identify the fact that in Canadian society (and other Anglophone societies) there is all kinds of discrimination that happens via language: discrimination against users of different regional and social varieties of English, or users of non-standard English or those whose English proficiency is developing. There is blatant racism against racialized first-language/proficient users of English from countries such as Nigeria that white first-language/proficiency users of English from countries such as England do not face.  Judgements around someone’s English ability and variety plays a well-documented role in employment and educational opportunities. In academia, “linguistic bigotry is among the last publicly expressible prejudices left to members of the Western intelligentsia”, according to linguist Deborah Cameron,; this bigotry doesn’t even seem to be hidden in many cases, and is often veiled in discussions about language standards or aesthetics.

There is a sorry lack of public visibility (audibility?) of different regional and social varieties of English in the media, and this is one contributing factor in a widespread lack of ability of some people in man parts of the country to deal with any other English than their local variety. As one of the folks quoted in the article says, “Haligonians should be more patient with people who may not speak English as a first language. Instead of an accent modification clinic, she says, we need an “accent listening clinic.” I wholeheartedly agree.

There are lots of measures that need to be taken taken to counter discriminatory linguistic attitudes in society, and to increase the general population’s intercultural and multilingual/plurilingual competence; on other words, their ability to deal with different accents and Englishes. The media is one place to start, and articles like this one do a a great job of opening the conversation. Another example from the Coast is their featuring journalist Raja Salim, who seems to be a proficient user of English as an additional language, whose perspective and voice adds a lot to the paper. I think the CBC could do a WAY better job in this area. Linguistic discrimination needs to be addressed in school, in the workplace, and in society in general. And monolingual English speakers in all parts of the world should just learn more languages, in my opinion; that would do wonders for improving attitudes.

Thankfully, there are lots of educators, linguists, academics and activists across Canada and around the world working on these issues (too many to link to here!), doing the hard work to change attitudes and behaviours. This is good work, but it’s hard work and it’s slow work. It’s good to want to change the world, but what about the meantime?

In the meantime, while attitudes and behaviours are being influenced and changed for the better, as long as certain linguistic varieties or elements carry more social prestige and allow access to more social and economic power, people have to be given the choice to access this social capital if they so desire. So if in the current context of 2017 Halifax a certain accent will help you get a better job, or more dates, or get better marks on their in-class presentations, for example, someone should have the opportunity to choose to access this economic and social capital via the Accent Clinic if they want to. Not be forced to, but to be able to choose it if they would like. An English speaker doesn’t just speak one English, they have a repertoire of different styles, dialects and varieties and they can pull out, put on, and play up in different context depending on their goals. I use one variety of English in an academic lecture and a completely different one down at the pub. A user of English as an additional language is no exception; if they want to acquire the particular variety of English they will at the Accent Clinic and employ it in different contexts, why shouldn’t they?

And this was an aspect of the issue missed by the Coast article. Why not talk to an actual student who had chosen to use the Clinic’s services and talk about why they did so? Why not talk to someone at ISANS to comment on the link between accent/pronunciation and the job market in Nova Scotia? ISANS and others are doing great work locally to try to change attitudes, but once again, we’re not there yet, so people have to be given choice and agency in the matter.

There were other aspects of the issue that were missed by the Coast article. One was the distinction between language proficiency, fluency, pronunciation and accent, all of which came up in the article and all of which come into play in terms of social attitudes and potential discrimination, but not all of which are dealt with by the Accent Clinic. The other was the assumption by both the author and several of the people interviewed, that the Accent Clinic uses an approach based on Canadian native-speaker models of English. I don’t know what approach the Clinic uses, but there are many approaches to pronunciation that aren’t based on emulating native speakers, such as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), or approaches that centre around concepts of mutual intelligibility and functional load. 

More Language Awareness!

Part of the reason I love using Twitter in my professional life is coming across newly published articles that might not make it onto my radar otherwise. This article by Veronika Koller (@VeronikaKoller), Language awareness and Language Workers, showed up on my feed the other day, and it’s a very interesting read.

Her argument is that language awareness–“an enhanced consciousness of and sensitivity to the forms and functions of language”–and skills should be more widespread among language workers.  Language workers are those who  produce language as the primary goal of their work, such as communications professional, copywriters, translators and interpreters, journalists, branding professionals, etc. Language awareness in general can “[increase] the quality of language work” while critical language awareness, which acknowledges the role of societal power and privilege and the role of language in creating and maintaining structures of power and privilege, can in addition have “empowering consequences for customers, employees and other stakeholders”. However, in terms of how to raise levels of language awareness in language workers, she finds that communications textbooks don’t adequately do the trick, and there is currently a gap between applied linguists in academia and language workers in the business world in terms of teaching and learning.

I totally agree with this article! More (critical) language awareness in the population in general would be a great thing. There might be fewer ill-informed non-stories in the media about language, featuring non-experts blathering on about their linguistic preferences and passing them off as “rules”, or giving flimsy arguments that don’t hold linguistic water in defense of not wanting to keep up with language change . Maybe if more marketers were sensitive to sociolinguistics, they’d be less likely to launch embarrassing social media campaigns appropriating the language of social groups not their own. 

Increased language awareness in the general population would benefit us as language teachers as well. I have to spend time in the classroom dispelling myths and common beliefs about language, language varieties, language learning and language acquisition. I also do a lot of quashing of folk linguistic beliefs, standing up for of language varieties that don’t have an army and/or navy, and defending socially stigmatized language behaviour at parties and social events, come to think of it.

I agree that better communications textbooks and transmission of knowledge between academia and the business world would help, but I also think that linguistics education in high school or required courses or linguistic content in writing or language courses at the undergraduate level in all subject areas would be beneficial. The more (critical) language awareness, the better!


Reading Activity: Refugees

Hat tip to my colleague Tony Rusinak, who posted this great poem on his social media today: Refugees, by Brian Bilsten.


They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

(now read from bottom to top)

Over and above the discussions that it would bring about on the topic of refugees, and the vocabulary work, this poem would make for a wonderful lesson.

  • You could print out two copies, one the way it’s written here, then another with the sentences in bottom-to-top order, and have students punctuate and adjust the capitalization on both, justifying their choices.
  • A follow up, once it were re-punctuated, would be to do some pronunciation work on thought groups, focus words and intonation. Then both versions could be read and compared not just in how the punctuation and capitalization differs, but also in how this affects aspects of pronunciation.
  • With more advanced groups, you could then try to have students write reverse poems. Or maybe palindrome poems.

Brian Bilsten has a ton of other fun and creative poetry on his website; I bet there’s lots more in there to use in the English classroom!


Language and the Immigrant Wage Gap

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI recently came across this article in MacLean’s: “New figures show just how big Canada’s immigrant wage gap is“. It was the sub-heading that caught my attention: “Even many second-generation immigrants earn much less than native-born workers. How speaking English impacts wages.”

After describing and discussing trends in the gap in wages between first and second generation immigrants to Canada and those who have been in Canada for several generations, the author talks about the role of English language proficiency and this wage gap. More specifically, the author focuses on whether English is spoken at home, and how this plays a role in the wage gap:

The latest census data says the native-first generation immigrant wage gap is 16 per cent at the national level. Once we examine whether immigrants speak English at home, things change — the wage difference is just 5.8 per cent. But for first-generation immigrants who don’t speak English at home, the gap jumps to 27.3 per cent.
For second-generation immigrants, there is barely any gap for those who speak English at home (0.7 per cent) but it’s still a significant gap for those who don’t speak English at home (a whopping 45.7 per cent).
This pattern also holds in the major metropolitan centres in the English-speaking parts of the country, which attract the most immigrants.

This article is written by an economist; he is just taking the statistical data that’s out there and analyzing it in different ways and seeing what interesting findings emerge. (It seems like there were no linguists, language teachers, people that work with immigrants, etc. involved in this article.) But I find the article dangerously close to leaving readers with the conclusion that all immigrants should abandon their L1 if it doesn’t happen to be English, and speak English at home, in order to close the wag gap.

Now, the author does acknowledge that there isn’t a causal relationship between speaking English at home and earning higher wages:

Though these patterns are striking, they should not be interpreted as causal – immigrants can’t necessarily start speaking English at home and expect to see their future earnings increase. There are unobserved qualities of individuals that may correlate both with the tendency to speak English at home as well as with labour market earnings potential. Without holding these fixed in some way, we can’t say whether there is a causal relationship between English skills and the gap in labour market outcomes.

I definitely agree; this is far from a causal relationship. First, neither the data nor the article define whether when they say an immigrant family “speaks English at home” are they referring to families who have immigrated from other countries where English is the dominant language and/or speak English as a first language? Or are they referring to immigrants who may have a different L1 but choose to raise their children in only English? It seems very obvious to me that if you’re talking about immigrants who may have English as an L1 and have come from the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland, etc. the there could be a host of socioeconomic and cultural advantages they would have over immigrants from other places that may give them a leg up in the job market. These are the “unobserved qualities of individuals” that the author mentions.

The author goes on to speculate.

But supposing that the findings here are suggestive of a causal relationship, why does speaking English at home matter so much?

One obvious answer is that individuals who speak English at home speak better English in general — and this would mean better communication at work. […] Or perhaps individuals of foreign descent that speak English at home tend to have other important skills on average.

But another possibility is the labour market discriminates against individuals with weaker English skills even when English is not important for productivity.

The author makes some important connections between English proficiency, the workplace and language-based discrimination in the workplace. His third point–that the labour market discriminates against “weaker English skills”, accents, non-standard Englishes and varieties of English that are different from the local variety even when it’s not an important for productivity–is a particularly important one. Anecdotally, I see this all the time in both my broader workplace, as well as around the city, in society in general, and even in pop culture.

Yes, the link between language skills and the workplace is real and important. But rather than leave folks with the idea that they should abandon their L1 when they arrive in Canada, why don’t we provide more funding and resources for different linguistic support and development mechanisms, so that people who want to continue to improve their English proficiency, and reap the benefits that may make on their wages, can do so if they wish? Also, initiatives to change attitudes in society in general, making people more understanding and accepting of linguistic diversity and bi- and multilingualism would also more helpfully contribute to closing the wage gap, I think.